11/01/2011 01:45 EDT | Updated 01/01/2012 05:12 EST

Slave Lake Fire: Arson Behind Devastating Blaze, Says Alberta Government (VIDEOS)


EDMONTON - Dwayne Verschoor can't imagine why someone would have wanted to spark a forest fire that nearly wiped out his small Alberta town.

But the Slave Lake resident wants the culprit caught and punished.

"The most you can do would be put him in jail," said Verschoor. "I would string him up on Main Street — but we're supposed to be civilized people."

The Alberta government announced Tuesday that an unknown arsonist recklessly or deliberately ignited the raging forest fire that reduced a third of Slave Lake to rubble on May 15. The blaze destroyed 400 homes and businesses and left 2,000 people homeless.

Frank Oberle, minister of sustainable resources, said the file has been turned over to the RCMP.

"It's extremely disappointing and my heart goes out to the people that lost homes or property," Oberle told a news conference.

"This further exacerbates that."

He said his investigators have ruled out all other possible causes for the fire. He wouldn't say how they've definitively ruled out that the blaze wasn't set accidentally, such as by a careless camper failing to properly extinguish a fire.

"Our investigation eliminated all natural, industrial or accidental causes."

Oberle said investigators have determined where the fire started, but he wouldn't give the co-ordinates because the scene is now part of a criminal investigation. He also wouldn't describe the area — whether it was near a campsite or deep in the bush.

"We know there was no lightning at that site, no power line malfunction and no campfire located at that site, so a process of elimination gets us to the only reasonable conclusion."

The minister wouldn't say if there was forensic evidence found at the scene to suggest arson, but added that a deliberately set forest fire is "relatively rare." A spokesman for the department later clarified that there is some forensic evidence, but refused to elaborate.

The news surprised Slave Lake nursery school teacher Karen Scharf. She said she's beyond angry about the fire and trying to move on.

"It's going to make no difference who they catch, blame, whatever," Scharf said. "It's going to make no difference in my life, because my house is gone."

Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee said she was extremely disappointed when Oberle personally called to tell her about the arson update. "We've lost so much and we can't ever take that back."

Residents will focus on healing and rebuilding and not jump to conclusions before police make a final determination on the fire's cause, she said.

Supt. Marlin Degrand, in charge of criminal investigations for the RCMP in Alberta, admitted it will be "difficult" to pull together the investigative threads more than five months after the fact.

"After a review we will determine an appropriate course of action," said Degrand. He couldn't comment on how long the investigation would take.

NDP Leader Brian Mason said while it was disturbing to hear arson may have been the cause, he wondered why it took the province five months to bring in the Mounties.

"As soon as they thought arson might be involved they should have brought in the RCMP," said Mason. "A parallel investigation would have been more prudent.

"If they wait to bring in the RCMP, someone might get away or slip through their fingers."

The town of Slave Lake, 250 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, is still struggling to get back on its feet after the devastating fire that was whipped by 100-km/h winds. Some new houses have been built, but many residents who lost their homes will be spending the winter in temporary mobile homes.

Total damage was pegged at $700 million, which insurance adjusters estimate makes it the second-costliest disaster next to the Quebec-Ontario ice storm of 1998, which cost about $1.8 billion.

The fire forced all 7,000 residents to leave for two weeks as fire crews completed salvage work and police secured the area.

No one was hurt, but a fire-fighting helicopter pilot crashed on Lesser Slave Lake and died. There were 1,400 firefighters deployed along with 170 helicopters and tankers.

Images of entire neighbourhoods razed to ash, homes reduced to charred cement foundations, were beamed around the world. In July, Prince William and his wife Kate made an impromptu visit during their cross-Canada tour to show support.

Government stats show there are about 1,500 forest fires each year in Alberta. One-third are caused by lightning and the other two-thirds are accidentally sparked by humans. In the past five years, arson was linked to 25 forest fires in the province.

Mike Flannigan, a professor in wildland fire science at the University of Alberta, said deliberately set forest fires have become a problem in California, Australia and the Mediterranean, but not Canada.

Sometimes arsonists are simply fascinated by fire, he said. Others may light fires because of a grudge.

Steven Penney, a law professor at the university, said arsonists don't necessarily have to intend to cause damage or injury. There are various arson offences in the Criminal Code, including arson by negligence.

Anyone who owns or possesses property and acts with gross negligence in failing to prevent or control the spread of a fire can be convicted of arson, he said. "Arson is an ambiguous term."

In August, the province announced an independent review of how well it fought the fire and on the overall effectiveness of its fire management programs. It is led by Bill Sweeney, a one-time RCMP senior deputy commissioner.

Questions have been raised over how the evacuation was carried out during the fire. Residents wanted to know why they were not given ample warning to leave. Some who left on their own were forced to turn around when roads were closed.

Days after the fire, the Alberta Emergency Management Agency said it did not recommend an evacuation, then later reversed its position and said it had directed Pillay-Kinnee to do so.

Pillay-Kinnee said the province ordered the evacuation after 6 p.m. on that fateful day, but by then heavy smoke had closed the roads out of town.

Municipalities are responsible for ordering evacuations but are dependent on information and fire updates from the province.

Communities around Slave Lake had been evacuated a day earlier, but town residents were told online and by radio that they were safe — even as the fire began licking the outskirts.

The province delivered almost $300 million in aid, including millions for modular homes for residents who lost everything. Money was also delivered to surrounding communities that set up evacuation centres.

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